Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Extra! Extra! Newsrooms For Sale!

Want to buy a newsroom? There's one for sale in Des Moines.

Somewhere, on the third floor of a building in downtown Des Moines, behind a security door and under relatively recent drywall or paint, there is graffiti that may stay there hidden forever.

“For a good time, call Jane. 8128.”

The wall may remain, but the reasons for the graffiti are long gone. It was put there by composing room guys, the newspaper equivalent of passenger pigeons – extinct. In a different time and a different place, the 1980s, the composing room staff pasted the articles onto a board as part of the plate-making process. With X-Acto knives in hand, they trimmed the stories at editors’ suggestion, human versions of Control X. What started out as just a phone number (mine) on a wall so they could get ahold of me one floor up in the sports department evolved into a bit of fun that I never minded even as a 20-something, since some of these old-timey guys I looked at like an uncle or grandpa.

These days, it’s not just the composing rooms that are becoming extinct. It’s the newsrooms altogether. Technology has changed what newspapers need – the printing presses can be off site, the staffs have shrunk, reporters can work from home or a coffee shop, photo staffs don’t need darkrooms anymore. Because of that – and the fact that many of them are in prime downtown real estate areas of their cities --  the classic newsrooms are going away.

The newspaper I worked at for 18 years, the Des Moines Register, has its building up for sale and will be moving down the street. The paper I worked for after that, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, has a building that sits right in the midst of downtown development around a new Minnesota Vikings football stadium and a move looms. The Washington Post building, where Woodward and Bernstein wrote stories that took down a president, is for sale.

The Register globe in the 1950s.

There’s much romanticizing of these places, and it’s not unfounded. My description of the Des Moines Register building always has been that it looks like the kind of place where Clark Kent and Lois Lane would work.There are beautiful marble staircases, with steps worn down from a century of journalists running up and down them. There is a giant globe in the lobby. Plaques of Pulitzer Prize winners (there have been 16 of them) greet visitors. Historic pages, with great headlines like “Earthquake Leaves San Francisco A Charnel House” line the hallway to get to the newsroom. Until 2000, the presses were in the building’s basement, with tall open windows from the street that allowed passersby to watch papers being printed.

It’s easy for those of us who don’t work there anymore to express shock and horror at the thought the newsroom is moving and changing. The newsroom in our minds was a city block long, with cigarette burns in the linoleum and the lingering echoes of barking editors. The reality is of a worn-down place that will never get the overhaul it needs.

Sometimes buildings wear out. Sometimes they aren’t so useful anymore. It’s sad, and I am all about preservation, but some things weren’t built to last or at the very least, they need a lot of tending.

The newsroom of my mind is a wonderful place, with a tough, crotchety editor who dreamed of one day getting to write a headline that said “Santa Found Dead In Alley.” Sadly for him, but happily for Santa, that
The newsroom of the 1980-90s.
never happened in Des Moines. It’s a place that the huge west-facing windows used to offer a free and clear view of the sunset every night and for the gorgeous ones, we’d stop what we were doing and watch. It’s a place where those same composing room guys would fill a pneumatic tube with popcorn and mark it “For Jane” and shoot it upstairs to me on a Saturday night.

But the newsroom of the real world is a place where blinds now block those windows so people can actually see their computer screens. In some ways, it's no loss; the flurry of downtown development in the past 15 years has taken away that western sunset view.

A hollow room once filled with presses.
The building and its newsroom are a place that has been retrofitted so many times for the continuous change of the industry that it’s recognizable but not familiar. It’s a place where the bathrooms are falling apart and the first newsroom staffers who show up to work post the temperature on Facebook so their co-workers will
know how to dress that day. They’ll either freeze or they’ll sweat, and indeed, on an afternoon visit there last month I went from being comfortable to wishing I had worn layers. Many of us who worked there wonder if health problems we've had were related to toxic presses in the basement.

For the people who are there and have to endure the romantic, not-based-in-reality notions of the staffers of the past, I understand how they might be tired of hearing that. I understand it every time I drive down the main street of my town, past the empty lot where my family’s home used to be.

The house has been gone for seven years now, but I still hear sadness from people on a regular basis. “Oh, it just breaks my heart every time I drive by where your house used to be,” they say.

For me, not so much. Our house, while a place filled with memories, had reached its time. Like the newsroom I love, it had been built onto and retrofitted so many times it could not take so much as another nail. An old building that had once been a Sinclair gas station circa 1932, then a pet hospital and then a photo studio with a house for eight people on top had nothing more it could give the world. With its flat leaky roof and many other issues, I think my mom would happily have swung a ceremonial sledgehammer before the bulldozers began their work if one were offered. I know I would have.

“It must be so sad not to see your house every time you drive by,” is something I hear a lot, too.

And nothing could be further from the truth. I see my house in my mind all the time. I see my sisters and me in Dad’s photo studio playing with his old Mathew Brady-like camera. I see my aunts and uncles and cousins shoved into all the rooms at card tables having Sunday dinner. I see my brothers learning to walk. I see my mom at the supper table, putting down her utensils after finishing a meal and saying, “Damn, I’m a good cook.”

The newspaper buildings will be gone, too, but not really. If anyone can tell stories, it’s newspaper people. And they’ll tell the stories of these places so well that if you close your eyes you’ll be able to see anything you ever wanted to see.

Except, perhaps, Santa Claus dead in an alley in Des Moines. And that’s probably a good thing. 

And if a bigger East Coast paper is more your preference, the Washington Post is also available.

All black-and-white Register photos used by permission and are part of an online history of the building, Tradition on the Move.

Press room photo by Andrea Melendez

A before-and-after look at Minneapolis development done by the Minneapolis Star Tribune shows green space where the Star Tribune newsroom now sits.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Mom Is Always a Mom

No matter how old you are, sometimes you still want your mom to come to the rescue.

About this time last year, I came up with what I thought was an extraordinary realization.

I knew my mother when she was the age I am now.

This, I surmised, would provide me with insight into the whole complex mother-daughter relationship thing.

It was a revelation that lasted but a few months. Soon I found that all the insight in the world did not matter. We are mother and daughter. Always have been. Always will be.


My mother, the nurse, knew that I was ill. Something wasn’t working right; she saw it in my walk.

Get to a doctor, she said, and I agreed. I just wanted to make the 275-mile journey from Mt. Horeb,Wis., back to Des Moines.

Yet the hardest call to make the next day, when it was apparent something was very wrong, was the call to my parents. What made it harder was that nobody was home and this was the kind of thing you really can’t leave on an answering machine at 10 p.m.

Mom, it’s me. I’m in the hospital, but don’t worry. I’ll call you back later after my spinal tap.


You don’t want anybody to worry, that’s why it’s such a hard call to make. You don’t want to utter those words, “Mom, come help me” because it seems as if you’ve lost control. To be 35 years old means you’re not supposed to be calling Mommy for help.

“Do you want me to come down?” my mother asked when I finally reached her.

“It’s not so bad. I just have to have a lot of tests,” I said.

“Do you want me to come down?” she repeated.

My boyfriend was here, so were my friends, I said.

“Do you want me to come down?” she asked again. She could be there by the next day.

Yes, I said. Please.

My health has always been a strange bond between my mother and me. In a family full of six children, me in the middle duo, it was about the only way to get the rare one-on-one with Mom.

There were the leg braces as a small child and the shopping trips to get corrective shoes. There was the back brace as an adolescent, which meant trips to Milwaukee for a specialist and years of doctor appointments. Those meant time off from school, afternoons at the mall, lunch in a nice restaurant or hot fudge sundaes at the ice cream parlor.

I got afternoons with my mother that my brothers and sisters never did. It didn’t make us any closer than she was with them, but I knew I was getting privileged time.

When she was on her way to Des Moines, I knew I had made the correct choice. Overnight, my health had worsened. I had been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a potentially crippling neurological disorder. The previous day, I was able to walk into the doctor’s office. Now, 24 hours later, I could barely walk at all.

Guillain-Barre is a weird thing. Who it attacks and what it attacks are random. Out-of-control antibodies attack the coating on the nerve endings instead of a virus that is already in your system, something as minor as a flu bug.

The effect is, essentially, the short-circuiting of the central nervous system. Any nerve or muscle in your body is a target, from the ability to blink to the ability to breathe. Which ones are hit is merely luck of the draw. Although the prognosis is generally optimistic, what abilities patients may recover and when are equally a mystery.

My mom knew of the diagnosis from my phone call --my doctors had  figured as much when they saw me walk into the office. Ironically, that day at work, a co-worker of my mom’s had returned a pamphlet on Guillain-Barre that she had borrowed from my mother’s files. It had just been there at the hospital for future reference. My mother needed it sooner than she thought.


I don’t remember much of the first weeks I was ill. I just know my mother was there. She slept in the bed beside me and did everything a sick person would need, everything you use a call button for to summon a nurse.

She walked me to the bathroom, clinging to me as I shuffled along in baby steps. She opened the food containers that my bumbling hands couldn’t manage and filled out menus for the next day’s meals because I could not write. She quietly ducked out of my room to give me privacy when my boyfriend or friends came by or it was time for my doctor to ask me personal questions.

She watered my flowers and complained on the rare days we didn’t get any. Yes, we. “Aw, nobody sent us flowers today,” my mom would joke.

She watched my health slip and was there when I was at my worst. My friends were supportive and my boyfriend was a rock, yet it was my mother who was the glue. She was the one who saw me at my worst. She saw things none of the rest did.

She was there when we couldn’t make the trip to the bathroom anymore and she had to lift me off the bed onto the commode. This is a woman of 64; I am nearly 6 feet tall. Her strength still amazes me.

Yet, there was always the mother-daughter thing underneath all of this. In addition to the Guillain-Barre, my doctors were searching for the virus that triggered it. My liver was not functioning properly, so there was a barrage of tests. One particular type of hepatitis test came back positive.

Whatever, I thought, more pills.

"What have you been doing?" my mother inquired.

Turns out this form of hepatitis can be sexually transmitted. My mom the nurse knew this; I didn’t. The scowl of disapproval from her is one I’ll never forget, even after someone came in 10 minutes later to say she read the test wrong and I didn’t actually have that ailment.

That didn’t matter; the damage was done.

This is how overwhelming the mother-daughter bond can be: I have lost my ability to walk, I’m struggling to breathe, I cannot eat, I cannot sleep, I drool way too much, I have excruciating back pain, I have tubes running in and out of me, I’ve lost the use of my hands and am soon to lose my ability to speak. But my biggest worry is that my mother thinks I’m a tramp.


Because my mother saw me in much worse shape than anyone else, I’m grateful she’s the one who was there when things began to turn around. One day, I took a nap and when I awoke I realized I was sick of my room. Except for, literally, lame attempts at walking down the hall, I really hadn’t been outside of it in two weeks.

Yet all of a sudden there was a wheelchair in my room and I wanted to get out. It was as if I were a small child asking a parent if I could see where they worked. I could get a sense of the happiness my mom got just from giving me a tour of the hospital. I wanted to get out of bed and sit in a chair; this was also a breakthrough that my mom was more than happy to accommodate. Little things, but big things.

She went to Wal-Mart to buy me the sweat pants I would need for my move to the rehab unit. Together we made the move upstairs and saw my new room.

It was a room in which she wouldn’t be sleeping; she went to my house instead.

Who will I call to take me to the bathroom? I asked. That’s what they pay the nurses for, Mom said. What if I need something in the middle of the night? I asked. Use your call button, Mom said.

At age 35, I was terrified at the thought of my mother not being there. And after the first day of physical and occupational therapies, she knew my days were full without her and it was time for her to go back home to Wisconsin.

I could have been a child left at the kindergarten door. I could have been a Girl Scout on my way to camp. I could have been a college student dropped off at the dormitory. I may as well have been for the way it hit me that I was on my own, without my mother.

The whole point of rehabilitation is to teach you independence. They just never specify from what.


A month later, I was out of the hospital and walking with a cane. My mom returned to spend a week with me, and it’s a trip I still kind of feel guilty about six months later.

I wasn’t the toddler who needed my mother anymore. I was a teenager hell-bent on proving my independence.

She arrived just at the time it was becoming conceivable that I would recover and be able to take care of myself. A pity she had to go through that with me twice in one lifetime.

Somewhat surly, I didn’t really say much at home. That had nothing to do with her; in six weeks in the hospital I had made a lifetime’s worth of small talk and I just felt like keeping to myself.

"You know you could say good morning to me," she said once.

"Sorry," I replied.

She left one day to go to the casino. I took my car and drove around the neighborhood. Days before, I had discovered that my hands and feet worked well enough to drive and I just wanted to get out of the house alone.

Like a teenager, I sneaked out of the house with the car when my mom wasn’t home. Only it was my house that I own and my car that I own. It was too weird.

The difference in age is this, however. I realized my rudeness in about a weekend. When you actually are a teenager, it takes about a decade.


So, yes, I knew my mother when she was the age I am now. Big whoop. At that point, my mom had four of her six children, had been married a while and as a nurse and paramedic had seen things I’ll never see in my lifetime.

And I’ve trouped through my adulthood as a single woman with choices and opportunities my mother either never had or never considered.

But a few years before my mother was this age, she gave birth to a daughter who would grow up to need her just as much at 35 as she did at 5. She is my mother and I am her daughter, regardless of age.

That has never changed. It never will. I know that now more than ever.

(This post first appeared as an article in the Des Moines Register in May 1997.)